VALLEJO – Top Vallejo police officials — including former police Chief Andrew Bidou — were alerted that officers were bending their badges to mark shootings in late 2014 or early 2015, but the practice continued for years after that with no discipline, according to a deposition from a former police captain.
Former police Capt. John Whitney, who is suing the department in a wrongful termination lawsuit, testified during a deposition in December that he noticed bends on then-Officer Joseph McCarthy’s badge in 2014 or 2015 and pointed them out to then-police Chief Andrew Bidou and then-Capt. Lee Horton. Bidou told Horton to “Take care of this,” Whitney testified, according to a transcript of the deposition obtained by the Vallejo Sun.
The transcripts detail Whitney’s version of events and corroborate previous court testimony in an unrelated case, further illustrating who knew about the tradition inside one of California’s most deadly police departments.
Whitney has alleged that he was fired in retaliation for exposing the badge bending tradition and other issues in the department, including that superiors have repeatedly failed to investigate use of force by officers, waiting until there was a lawsuit or citizen complaint to address issues.
City records show that Whitney was fired for allegedly destroying data on his city-issued cell phone during an investigation. In his deposition, Whitney admitted the allegation but said he didn’t think he did anything wrong.
Whitney’s testimony indicates that Bidou was made aware of badge bending four years before previously known, but took no action during his term as chief. The city did not conduct an investigation until when Whitney exposed the tradition publicly a year after Bidou left the department.
Officers bent the tips of their star-shaped badges following their involvement in a shooting for more than a decade. Former police Lt. Kent Tribble testified last year that he brought the tradition when he transferred from the Concord Police Department in 2003. Tribble also testified that Horton warned him about the practice sometime in 2016, but did not indicate that the chief had been informed at that time.
The practice continued to spread until after the 2019 police killing of Willie McCoy, when six police officers fired 55 times at McCoy after they found him unresponsive in his car in a Taco Bell drive thru. An investigation into one of those officers finally led to the department taking action to stop badge bending, but the department still conducted no investigation into its extent.
Whitney testified that he told then-Mayor Bob Sampayan — a retired Vallejo police sergeant — that the review of the McCoy shooting had been superficial and that the department’s response did not serve the community.
“I told him that had they employed proper tactics, use of force wouldn't have been needed,” Whitney testified.
Vallejo brass noticed bent badge as officer was promoted
Whitney testified that prior to McCarthy’s promotion in 2014 or 2015, he offered to get McCarthy’s badge repaired as he would receive a temporary corporal badge. McCarthy refused.
“He didn't want his badge fixed because he said it was a badge of honor, and the bends represented the shootings he had been in,” Whitney testified.
“I can't remember how many bends there were,” Whitney said. “They were significant enough to where I could see them, and the badge was curled in… There was more than one, at least two or three that I can recall.”
By then McCarthy had been involved in three shootings as a Vallejo police officer.
McCarthy and Officer Jason Bauer shot and killed 53-year-old Peter Mestler on May 24, 2012, after he allegedly pulled out a BB gun when the officers confronted him. On July 4, 2012, McCarthy and Officer Robert Kerr shot and killed 44-year-old Marshall Tobin in the parking lot of a Safeway grocery store.
On April 9, 2014, McCarthy and then-Sgt. Steve Darden shot and killed 29-year-old Ever Ramon Martinez after they ended a vehicle pursuit by pinning Martinez’s car between two patrol cars. Less than two months later, on May 29, McCarthy received a medal of merit, a life-saving medal and was nominated for officer of the year.
Whitney testified that as McCarthy was being promoted, he reported the bends to Bidou and Horton. “Hey, he's got a badge with bends on it, he says it represents the shootings,” Whitney testified he said. “We all know he shouldn't have something like that… there's no keeping track of shootings and having it on your uniform.”
“The chief looked at Horton and said, ‘Take care of this,’” Whitney testified.
Whitney didn’t recall the exact date of that interaction, but Bidou joined the department in October 2014, according to city employment records, and McCarthy ordered a new corporal badge in February 2016, according to records from the department’s badge manufacturer.
The department conducted no investigation, but Tribble testified that Horton ordered him to stop the practice more than a year later.
Capt. Lee Horton confronted Lt. Kent Tribble about badge bending
In late 2016, Tribble was promoted to lieutenant. After his promotion, Horton confronted him about badge bending, asking him “What’s wrong with your badge?” and saying, “I know what that is and I don’t want to see it,” Tribble testified.
Tribble said he was confused because he was wearing his lieutenant’s badge, which wasn’t bent at the time, but understood Horton was talking about badge bending. He said that Horton later confronted him a second time, telling him the practice needed to stop.
Tribble said that he told Officers Matthew Komoda, David McLaughlin and Sgt. Jeremy Huff that they needed to tell others that badge bending was over in the department. But despite his efforts to correct it, and saying he wanted to be a better role model, Tribble acknowledged that he also bent his own lieutenant’s badge while angrily drinking at home one night.
Whitney testified that he did not hear about badge bending again until after the shooting of Willie McCoy in February 2019.
Shortly after that shooting, Officer Ryan McMahon was placed on leave. Two range instructors noticed he added a plate to his gun with the words “Veritas” and “Aequitas," meaning “truth and justice,” a reference to the 1999 film Boondock Saints where two brothers engage in vigilante justice.
Whitney testified that McMahon turned in his badge to then-Sgt. Drew Ramsay, who noticed that the badge had two bent tips. Ramsay went to Bidou’s office and Whitney was present, and Ramsay said, “Hey, he bent his badge for the two shootings he was in,” according to Whitney. Prior to the McCoy shooting, McMahon shot and killed Ronell Foster in 2018.
Ramsay said that Officer Zachary Jacobsen, who shot and killed Angel Ramos in 2017, had bent McMahon's badge, Whitney testified.
During an executive staff meeting in spring of 2019, Bidou told Whitney to instruct all the department supervisors to have anyone under their command who had bent badges to turn them in. Within two hours, about ten officers turned in their badges, Whitney said.
Whitney testified that Bidou had intended to have the badges repaired, but he was concerned that the bill would raise questions about why so many officers needed their badges repaired. Instead, he ordered them returned to the officers. Whitney testified that he refused to give them back to the officers because they’d be getting rid of the evidence of the badge bending practice.
“I was upset it was happening because that's not what law enforcement officers do. We shouldn't be bending our badges after we shoot someone. That's a very traumatic thing on both sides, for both the family that lost the loved one and the officer who conducted the shooting,” Whitney said. “It shouldn't be something that's memorialized. It should be something that officers should make sure they recover from.”
Capt. John Whitney testified that he alerted top city officials about badge bending
In April 2019, Whitney was acting chief of police while Bidou was out of the state. During that time, videos of Vallejo police had been released to the media, including the shooting of McCoy. Greg Nyhoff, Vallejo’s city manager at the time, called Whitney to his office to demand to know what was going on in the department.
Whitney testified that he told Nyhoff about badge bending and numerous other problems in the department, including that a supervisor did not respond to the initial call of a man asleep with a gun that February because they were watching Netflix at the station and didn’t hear about it until after police shot Willie McCoy 38 times.
Whitney testified that Sgt. George Simpson told him the supervisors were watching Netflix, but when Whitney asked Bidou to investigate whether anyone was logged into Netflix that night, Bidou refused.
“He did not want to investigate it,” Whitney testified. “He said it would create more liability for the failure to supervise, and he just wanted that left alone because only a few people knew about it.”
Whitney also testified that he was concerned about a traffic stop involving McCoy’s niece Deyana Jenkins on April 15, 2019. A lawsuit alleges that Vallejo officers Colin Eaton and Jordan Patzer – both officers who had killed McCoy – held her at gunpoint, dragged her out of the car, threw her on the ground and Tased her. A bystander recorded the events on a cell phone.
Jenkins was arrested and taken to jail, but the Solano County District Attorney’s office didn’t charge her with a crime.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported the stop in May 2019. Jenkins sued the department later that year.
About that stop, Whitney testified that Jenkins’ verbally protesting being pulled over made “the officers angry enough to put her on her stomach and shoot her in the back with a Taser when she was not physically resisting arrest or resisting their commands.”
Whitney also said he was disturbed that a 2017 incident when officers attacked a man who was repairing his fence was not investigated.
“I felt like by not getting investigated, we're not keeping our promise to the community to be transparent and to do the right thing and hold ourselves accountable,” Whitney testified “And that was touted at community engagement meetings and yet, behind closed doors we weren't doing that.”
Nyhoff told Whitney he wanted to schedule a meeting the next day with him, then-City Attorney Claudia Quintana and then-Mayor Bob Sampayan to review the video of when Jenkins was stopped.
But Whitney said he was surprised when he arrived and found then-Capt. Joseph Iacono at the meeting and Bidou participating by phone. He testified that they watched the video of the Jenkins stop and Iacono opined that the officers had not used excessive force. Whitney testified that Bidou asked for his opinion.
“I told him I believed that excessive force was used, unnecessary force was used, and the young lady should not have ever been charged or shot with a Taser,” Whitney testified. “She certainly shouldn't have been charged with any crime and booked in the county jail, and that we needed to conduct an internal affairs investigation effective immediately.”
Bidou said he would open an investigation, but Whitney testified that he didn’t know whether an investigation was ever opened or what the outcome was.
After that meeting, Whitney testified he met separately with Quintana and Sampayan. He said that he and Quintana worked on a press release regarding the Jenkins stop for several hours that day.
“I had told her that there's a lot of things going on that shouldn't be. She agreed,” Whitney testified. “She said a lot of these civil rights cases shouldn't be happening, and implored me to help fix the police department.”
After he met with Quinana, Whitney testified that Sampayan called him into his office. Whitney said that he had known Sampayan from when he was a sergeant in the police department and that he was visibly upset.
Whitney said he soon started receiving threats. Darden — now a lieutenant — stared him down at the gym, which prompted Whitney to cancel his membership.
“At that point I was starting to fear for my family's safety. My children were scared, my wife was very scared at the time,” Whitney testified “I did not want to be involved in anything involving Vallejo PD because I was scared they were going to do something else.”
Whitney was looking for a job with another agency, but before he could leave he was fired.
Whitney testified that he was investigated for leaking information to a reporter. Whitney had been using his cell phone for both his duties for the city and as a personal device, and testified that Bidou had told him to delete his text messages and emails because they were stored on a city server.
In May 2019, Iacono and Ramsay approached Whitney to collect his phone as part of an internal affairs investigation. Prior to handing it over, Whitney told Iacono he needed to call his wife to tell her not to call or text him, but then erased the phone’s contents by resetting it to factory settings.
According to a notice of termination obtained by the Vallejo Sun, Whitney was fired on Aug. 16, 2019, for erasing data on his city-owned cellphone prior to turning it in during an investigation.
Bidou left Vallejo police in June 2019. He tried to retire months earlier and be hired on an interim basis to help the department look for a new chief, but state law prevented him from double-dipping into state coffers.
The department only launched an investigation into badge bending after Whitney publicly exposed the practice in 2020. The city appointed former Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano to conduct the investigation.
Whitney declined Giordano’s request for an interview because he did not think investigation would be done properly.
“I felt like it was going to be a whitewash of what actually occurred,” Whitney testified.
That investigation was concluded in September 2021. Despite public outcry, the city has not made Giordano’s report public. One judge who read parts of the report says it has “no value” and Giordano’s investigation was "not designed to bring some light" into badge bending.
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THE VALLEJO SUN NEWSLETTER
Investigative reporting, regular updates, events and more
- Vallejo Police Department
- John Whitney
- Andrew Bidou
- Joseph McCarthy
- Lee Horton
- Kent Tribble
- Willie McCoy
- Bob Sampayan
- Jason Bauer
- Peter Mestler
- Robert Kerr
- Marshall Tobin
- Steve Darden
- Ever Ramon Martinez
- Matthew Komoda
- David McLaughlin
- Jeremy Huff
- Ryan McMahon
- Drew Ramsay
- Zachary Jacobsen
- Angel Ramos
- Ronell Foster
- Greg Nyhoff
- George Simpson
- Deyana Jenkins
- Colin Eaton
- Jordan Patzer
- Claudia Quintana
- Joseph Iacono
- Rob Giordano
Scott Morris is a journalist based in Oakland who covers policing, protest, civil rights and far-right extremism. His work has been published in ProPublica, the Appeal and Oaklandside.
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